Chisholm was raised in New Plymouth, New Zealand, by parents Heather and Doug Chisholm. His first musical experiences came with local Dixieland bands. He began playing clarinet at age nine before switching to what became his primary instrument, the alto saxophone, two years later. The early influences of Johnny Hodges, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy were strong, being his first jazz records. He was a member of the award winning New Plymouth Boys’ High School Jazz band and won the prize for Most Outstanding Jazz Musician at the National Jazz Festival in Tauranga, 1991.
With a DAAD scholarship Chisholm attended the Musik Hochschule in Cologne, Germany. He studied saxophone with Frank Gratkowski. In 1997 he received the New Zealand Young Achievers Award which enabled him to continue his studies abroad. During these years he also studied Carnatic music in Chennai and traveled extensively in the Balkans learning the different musical traditions.
During his studies in Cologne Chisholm developed a system of micro-tonal fingerings for saxophone and so called “split-scales” which he presented on his 1996 debut solo CD Circe on Jazzhaus Musik. These scales split perfect intervals using quarter tones. His microtonal work was later featured on the Root70 album Root70 on 52nd 1/4 Street which received the German Critics Award.
During his studies in Cologne he met many musicians he still collaborates with today including Marcus Schmickler, Nils Wogram, John Taylor, Felix Fan, Adrian Brendel, Burnt Friedman, Jochen Rückert, Burnt Friedman, Antonis Anissegos, Jaki Liebezeit, Claudio Bohorquez. He also worked under Mauricio Kagel who was then professor for composition.
Since 2000 he has collaborated with the German artist Rebecca Horn. His work with her is wide ranging, from composing the music for major site-specific installations “Moonmirror” (Mallorca, 2003), “Lumiere en Prison” (Paris, 2002), Spiriti de Madre Perla” (Naples, 2002), “Twilight Transit” (NYC 2004), Heart Shadows (Lisbon, 2005), “Das Universum in einer Perle” (Berlin, 2006), to recomposing the music for her early performance films which was released on a complete DVD set in 2005. In 2008 he worked as assistant director with Horn for the Salvatore Sciarrino Opera Luci mie traditrici at the Salzburger Festspiele. In 2009 he composed the music for her film Fata Morgana which was premiered at the Teatro La Fenice Opera House during the Venice Biannale. In 2011 he composed the music for her documentary film “Moonmirror Journey” which premiered in Berlin.
In 2001 he composed music for the German Theater (Deutsches Schauspielhaus) in Hamburg, working on Maria Stuart by Schiller and Arabische Nacht by Schimmelpfennig.
In 2006 and 2007 he was musical director of the Earth Festival in Kenya which featured a large cast of international musicians, including Huun Huur Tu. In 2008 he performed with David Sylvian on the “World is Everything” tour.
Since 2006 he teaches a yearly masterclass on Mount Pilion in Greece in the village of Agios Lavrentios. His course “The G-string of Pythagoras”fuses saxophone, just intonation, ancient music theory, and improvisation.
In 2008 he was assistant director at the Salzburg Festspiele of the Opera “Luci Mie Traditrici” by Salvatore Sciarrino.
In 2012 Chisholm was featured in the feature documentary Sound of Heimat – Deutschland singt, directed by Arne Birkenstock and Jan Tengeler. In the film, Chisholm travels through Germany and explores authentic forms of German folk music.
In 2013 he released a 13-CD Box set 13 Views of the Heart’s Cargo which presents his most important recordings dating back to 2001. The first CD in this box, Love in Numbers, features works for Saxophone in which Chisholm explores the Fibonacci series as it manifests in the overtone series.
In 2015 Hayden Chisholm contributed to Waywords and Meansigns, a collaborative project setting James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to music.
Hayden is a member of the quartet Root 70 with trombonist Nils Wogram.